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Robert Donat: an actor worth remembering

In the 1930s and 40s, Robert Donat was one of the biggest stars in British cinema and a household name, but for the actor himself, it was always a tussle between film and stage.

The 1939 Oscar for best actor was expected to go to Clarke Gable for Gone with the Wind unless James Stewart pipped him to it for Mr Smith Goes to Washington. In fact it would go to neither. In front of an astounded audience, the British actor Robert Donat was named the winner for his portrayal of an aging headmaster in the sentimental classic, Goodbye, Mr Chips.

Any other year and the award may not have been such a shock. Afterall, Donat had been nominated the year before for his role in The Citadel, and he was already a major star both in Hollywood and Britain with hugely successful films under his belt, such as The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Count of Monte Cristo and The 39 Steps.

But, in truth, his career as a cinema legend had come about more by chance than design.

Robert Donat

'The foundation of my whole creative life'

By the time Donat was 12 in 1918, cinema was still a fledgling industry and the young boy’s passion had already been caught by the theatre. His first headmaster had noticed and encouraged it, and at home he would stage productions in the garden shed with his elder brother John. Yet, the dream of a life on the stage was overshadowed by Donat’s circumstances. As a working class boy from the outskirts of Manchester, he not only had a strong Lancashire accent punctured by a severe stammer, but he came from a family without any connection to vaudeville or the theatre and whose future lay as farmers in Canada.

A visit that year to see James Barnard’s recital of A Christmas Carol in nearby Rusholme changed everything for Donat. Having watched the concert, he now knew what he wanted to be and he persuaded his ever-supportive parents to send him for elocution lessons with Bernard, a professor at the Leeds College of Music.

James Bernard
James Bernard

But Bernard was far more than an elocution teacher. As a once aspiring actor himself, he incorporated stage craft, projection and articulation into his approach to cure the boy of his stammer. Donat himself later reflected that the lessons had set ‘the foundation of my whole creative life and the irremovable and irreplacable [sic] rock on which my career was built’. Recitals and poetry performances formed a big part of Bernard’s methodology, developing Donat’s already present love of acting. But it was an old-school form of acting, born from theatre and Shakespeare rather than Chaplin and Keaton. ‘My elocution teacher in Manchester,’ Donat recalled ‘was always reminding me to “remember the bloke at the back who had paid his tanner,” and I have never forgotten it’.

It was a slow process. Donat was still in need of lessons three years later when he left school, and despite his brothers having all emigrated to Canada (his parents would follow them in 1928), he stayed in the UK, taking a job as Bernard’s secretary to pay for them. He gradually perfected his delivery, lost both his stammer and accent, learnt projection and annunciation and developed the voice that would become his trademark. Bernard’s connections with the theatre also gave Donat the route he needed in to that world. Years later, he would honour his teacher and mentor, recalling that ‘whatever success I may have gained has been entirely due to James Bernard, my elocution teacher in Manchester, who taught me all I know. He pushed me into my first stage job, and has always given me every possible help a man could give’.

'The most graceful actor of our time'

Donat was now on the road to becoming a professional actor but it was the theatre rather than films that had captured his attention. In 1921, at the age of sixteen, he debuted on the British stage at Birmingham’s Prince of Wales Theatre as Lucius in Julius Caesar, and three years later he joined Sir Frank Benson’s prominent Shakespearean company. For the next four years he perfected his skills, graduating from roles such as ‘a lord’ in As You Like It, to the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear and both Sebastian and Ferdinand in The Tempest.

Whilst his experience grew, Donat now made one of the most important decisions of his career. Rather than just settling for working with Benson’s company, he used the breaks in his nationwide tours to keep in touch with provincial repertory theatre to expand his range of work. This brought him into contact with the great actor-managers of the age, such as Alfred Wareing at the Theatre Royal in Huddersfield, whose repertoire was known to be ambitious and challenging. 

Royal Theatre
Royal Theatre Huddersfield

Donat learnt all that he could, and in August 1928 he told his brother that he had decided that this was what he wanted to do, although he was still thinking about auditioning in America for talking pictures.

By the end of the month, however, thoughts of films were put aside when he began a contract at the Liverpool Playhouse followed by a move to Cambridge with his new wife, Ella Annesley Voysey a year later. He now had access to leading roles such as in Bernard Shaw’s The Admirable Bashville and Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, and in 1931 he had his first successful appearance on the London stage in Precious Bane followed by an acclaimed run at the Malvern Festival.

Robert Donat
The Count of Monte Cristo

Donat’s foray into films in 1931 came as a means to supplement his stage income. His initial screen tests, as he himself later acknowledged, were poor: ‘In the old days when I was trying to break into films, I used to under-act for my film tests to such an extent that the result on the screen was entirely negative. In other words something that might have been lively and real and full size on the stage became inhibited and frustrated and frozen on the screen.’

 Ironically, for a man who had once had a speech impediment, it was his voice, and particularly his laugh, which the director Alexander Korda liked, so-much-so that he gave him a three year contract in 1932 on the basis of it.

At this time, he also began to suffer from asthma, the illness that would dog him for the rest of his life. It often flared up when he was particular stressed and it could sometimes become so bad that he was unable to work.

Theatre roles remained at the forefront of his work and he was appearing on stage in The Sleeping Clergyman when his breakthrough on screen came in 1933 with his fourth film, The Private Life of Henry VIII alongside Charles Laughton who described him as ‘the most graceful actor of our time’. Hollywood offers were to follow, but, disliking the American lifestyle, he returned to Britain after only making one, the highly successful The Count of Monte Cristo in 1934. Behind the protestations that Hollywood was ‘Bungalows, boulevards — the whole place is just an Ideal Home Exhibition’ lay a more important reason for his return: Donat was not prepared to give up his theatre work which the move to Hollywood would have forced on him.

The 39 Steps

It is natural that we automatically rue the films that cinema audiences lost out on because of this decision. Most famously is Captain Blood, the swashbuckling adventure that would have seen him fight Basil Rathbone and woo Olivia De Havilland. But if we lost him as Peter Blood we gained him as Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps, the film he made instead. 

Arguably, this is the better outcome for us. Whilst both films deals with an innocent man caught up in something far bigger, Hitchcock’s masterpiece plays to Donat’s physical and acting strengths. Donat blends humour with high intensity and sexual chemistry and displays a sophisticated understanding of how to bring Hitchcock’s vison to life. 

Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll
Robert Dpnat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps

He showed this when he reflected in 1938 that an actor ‘…must gauge his movements so that at the moment of the close-up, his head will be momentarily still and his eyes — almost imperceptibly — will flash their story’.

The film raised Donat’s profile even further: the contempory film critic Caroline Lejeune, noted that ‘Mr Donat who has never been very well served in the cinema until now, suddenly blossoms out into a romantic comedian of no mean order’. Others agreed and Korda put him in his next film, the same year that Donat finally achieved his dream of becoming an actor-manager in a London theatre.

The 39 steps

The finest actor

For the next twenty years Donat would work on both the screen and stage. Whilst Goodbye, Mr Chips in 1939 remains his cinematic highpoint, contractual difficulties, ill health, a lack of confidence and an inability to compromise on scripts would prevent us from seeing him in many more films. Although Hitchcock wanted him for three more of his movies (including as the mysterious and secretive anti-hero Max De Winter in Rebecca) Korda would not lend him again.

1953 saw one of his greatest performances, not on screen but on stage, in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral playing the doomed Archbishop Beckett. It was also his last appearance on stage.

Robert Donat
Robert in 1940

As his asthma became more debilitating, a hunt for a cure cost him most of his fortune, and oxygen had to be kept close by in case of a severe attack. He took some solace in radio and in recording poetry, using the voice and the skills that he had perfected with Bernard to continue to perform during his final years of illness, when acting had become almost impossible.

He died on 9 June 1958 at the age of 53. The cause of death was not asthma, but a stroke brought on by a brain tumour. He managed to complete his final scenes for The Inn of Sixth Happiness but he didn’t live to see it released five months later.

Between 1932 and 1958 Donat only made twenty films yet the legacy that he left marks him out as one of the most gifted and natural actors Britain has ever produced. He was also very much an actor’s actor: Peter Sellers said, ‘I think he is God’, whilst he was one of Judy Garland’s favourite actors. The American film director King Vidor, who led him to an Oscar nomination for The Citadel, declared: 

‘Bob Donat was the most helpful and co-operative star with whom I ever worked, as well as one of the finest actors.’

Further reading

For more information on Robert Donat take a look at

‘Performing Hitchcock’: Robert Donat, Film Acting and The 39 Steps (1935) by Victoria Lowe

The biography written for The Robert Donat family letters

Robert Donat by Jenny the Nipper and Gill Fraser Lee